Vetstoyou EN

Compulsive grooming in cats

Picture of Catarina Dias

Catarina Dias


Cats themselves are very clean animals and concerned about their hygiene. But how about when this behaviour is exaggerated? There are several reasons that can lead a cat to compulsively lick, scratch, pull and chew, to the point of damaging their hair and skin.

If your cat shows compulsive licking or grooming, you will undoubtedly witness it, or if you don’t watch it at the time, you may notice lack of hair or changes in it in certain areas of the body.

Although compulsive behaviours of scratching, licking or chewing can develop in any animal, these are more often seen in Siamese and other oriental cats. This is also more common in females than males.

  • Causes of compulsive licking and scratching?

Parasites: Fleas are often the ones to blame for compulsive behaviours of scratching  and licking in cats. As cats are excellent at maintaining their hygiene, they can actually  remove traces of fleas out of their hair. If you notice that your cat mainly licks the lower back, with or without scabs on the neck, this is a sign that fleas may be causing the problem. Other parasites, including ticks, mites and fungi can also cause itching and compulsive licking or chewing of the fur.

Allergies: Just like some people develop skin rashes from allergies to certain foods or environmental factors, cats can also experience itching and skin lesions if they are allergic to something in their environment or food.

Dry skin: Changes in weather or nutritional deficiencies can contribute to drier and flacky skin, causing your cat to start licking or scratching itself for relief.

Pain: If you notice that your cat is licking or biting the same place over and over again, it could indicate that your cat may feel pain or discomfort in that area or in another part of the body.

Boredom, anxiety or compulsive disorder: Compulsive behaviours like chewing, scratching or licking are signs that often develop in cats that are anxious , stressed or bored. These disorders are most likely to occur in indoor cats, who exercise less than outdoor cats. Compulsive disorders usually start when there are changes in the cats’s environment and routine, such as a new animal or baby at home or even a change of location or home moving. On the other hand, behaviours that start in response to a medical problem may persist even when treatment is started.

  • How can compulsive licking cases be treated?

Deworming: eliminating parasites using appropriate veterinary deworming products can resolve the primary cause when the cat is parasitized. These should always be applied as recommended by a veterinary doctor.

Food and environmental management: In cases with proper medical advice, in which food allergy can be the cause, providing exclusion diets for at least 6 to 8 weeks is a good way to know if that is the cause.  You may have to try different diets before finding one that works for your cat. Your veterinary doctor may also prescribe supplementation of certain fatty acids or other nutritional supplements if your cat has dry skin and/or coat, and if there are signs that these may be lacking. Certain environmental factors that can  cause allergies may also not be easy to determinate. In these cases, the ideal is to avoid to contact with possible allergens, that is, to the elements that may cause allergies. Some cases, depending on the medical evaluation, may benefit from immunotherapy.

Medication: Depending on the extent of the lesions and their cause, and on the medical evaluation, medication may be prescribed for local and/or oral application.

It is possible that the primary cause for your cat’s behaviour may not be immediately detected, and that it is required a consultation with a dermatology specialist. On the other hand, excluding dermatological and other medical causes, this could be a true behavioural problem. These cases may also need specialized help, however there are strategies that can improve the animal’s state of mind and make it feel more comfortable. Ensuring that your cat feels safe, peaceful, loved and comfortable in its home is important, as in providing sensory stimulation and adequate exercise, contributing to its environmental enrichment.

There are numerous medical an behavioural causes that can result in compulsive scratching and licking behaviours. Always consult a veterinary doctor to help determinate the cause and thus the best therapy.

Count on our veterinary team for more information.